Ralph Friesen has written a fine book called Dad, God, and Me. Let me say at the outset that in reviewing this book I am not neutral. The author Ralph Friesen has been a friend of mine for many years. We grew up in the same town, Steinbach, and curled together from time to time. In fact I was a little bit younger than he was, and I and my friends considered him and his friend Patrick Friesen intellectual leaders of our generation. But I realized after reading this book that our experiences growing up in this town were very different.
Ralph’s upbringing as the son of a Kleine Gemeinde conservative Mennonite Church, was very different from my experience, the son of much more moderate Christians. My parents were much more liberal in the religion they doled out. I would say that Ralph’s life was soaked with evangelical religion. To me Ralph paints a picture of parents with a shockingly totalitarian view of Steinbach in which children were nearly suffocated with religion. In other words, it was religion that invaded all of life. Frankly, I found even the much more liberal theology of my parent’s church too stifling for my taste. More conservative members of our community considered it barely religion at all. I can’t imagine how I would I would have survived his upbringing.
The religion of the Kleine Gemeinde (little congregation) was, to echo of phrase of Albert Camus, religion without limits, making it as unpalatable as politics without limits. I thank Ralph for giving me a peek into his world. It was a fascinating look. Now I know how lucky I was not to be raised in that environment.
Not that Ralph’s family was not loving. They were certainly loving. The parents, the father in particular, just wanted to determine everything about his son’s faith. Nothing else would do. As Bob Dylan said, the parents were “Making you feel that you gotta be just like them.” Every book, every piece of music, every sporting event, every relationship was viewed through an evangelical lens. Nothing was off limits. That is what religion without limits is all about.
Before his father got saved or born again, thanks in part to an itinerant evangelical minister, Ralph’s father enjoyed life outside the church. In particular he loved movies. The theatre in Steinbach was driven out of town as some Mennonites, like the Kleine Gemeinde became ever more evangelical. I remember as a youth how sad I was at that. I loved going to movies and my parents did not discourage me from doing that. I remember one day I had gone to see the movie Heidi about a young Swiss girl. I loved the film. It was a joyful experience. But when I walked home all alone on a Friday night I was approached by 2 old crones who stopped me and asked me what I was doing out this late on a Friday night. I exuberantly told them about his wonderful movie I had just seen. The women were shocked. This was awful. Did I not realize I was bound for hell if I did things like that? I was totally mystified. What could be wrong with seeing a film about Heidi. I could not understand. In time I did of course but to a young lad this was a scary experience. These were the evangelicals of our town.
As Ralph explains in the book,
“The Mennonites mistrusted the arts, and all individual creativity, as belonging to the sinful world, distracting the Christian from the serious worship of God. Dad fell into line with that view after his conversion. If he was to express himself creatively, he would contain that expression within religious boundaries, as in composing sermons, or leading choirs, or signing hymns.”
Does that not sound totalitarian? Religion intended to dominate all of life. Some Mennonites, thank goodness, saw things differently. But to the Kleine Gemeinde religion was that absolute. It was everything.
Ralph describes that milieu with precision, but with compassion. He clearly loves his family, but did not allow them to choke him. Ralph, unlike most Mennonite youth in such circumstances managed to bolt for freedom.
I would suggest that no matter whether you are a Mennonite or not, Christian or not, you can enjoy this book. It is well worth the trip.